The Batman: Arkham series is treading water. It doesn't seem to have travelled far between Arkham City and the latest game in the series, Origins. The good news is that it's in a pretty decent spot for a paddle.
The set-up goes like this: Batman is in the second year of his war on crime and Gotham's resident crime lord Black Mask, starting to feel the pinch a bit, has put a $50 million bounty on his head. Well, it looks that way.
It doesn't take too long for it to become apparent things are not entirely what they seem. But that's the set-up: a series of assassins - including Deathstroke, Bane, The Electrocutioner, Shiva, Copperhead and Lady Shiva - are coming for Batman, and he's not prepared to stay at home with a hot chocolate and sit it out lest they put civilians in harm's way. And guys, it's Christmas Eve and
it's snowing quite a lot outside. That's commitment.
It's a strong set-up for the game. It's a nearly-logical way to introduce a succession of boss fights, but WB Montreal has avoided falling into the trap of telling a very linear story in which the player just trails from one boss battle to the next.
The ongoing mystery of just what's going on with 'Black Mask' and all the side missions deal with that. And, as anyone who's seen Die Hard
) knows, setting your big-action story on Christmas Eve gives it an interesting, strangely claustrophobic feel.
But... The premises of both Arkham Asylum
and Arkham City
. They gave Rocksteady, developer of the previous two games, easy and reasonable access to most of Batman's considerable roster of psychopathic enemies. Arkham Origins
treads a similar path to Chris Nolan's The Dark Knight
, charting the introduction of more... exotic threats into Batman's world. That means that the better baddies are not already out there, fully-formed, and a lot of the villains spotlighted are B- or C-list. There are certainly characters beyond the assassins mentioned above, but it's not as dense and rich a game world as in Asylum
Also, it's a prequel. The problem with prequels is in-built – we know where this all ends up. While the comic Year One
is one of the greatest Batman
stories ever told, it's already been told. Another twist on Batman's early years in a separate line of continuity is less interesting than building on the crazy Rocksteady introduced in Arkham City
(presumably that's what Rocksteady is doing for the next game).
Similarly, great as the game world looks (and it does
look great – a bleak mix of brutal industrialism, Tim Burton gothic and art deco reminiscent of the Animated Series
) we've already spent a lot of time gliding and grappling around a version of it in Arkham City
If Arkham Origins
does bring anything new to the table, it's a slight increase in focus on combat, primarily in boss battles. Don't worry, the rhythm-based fighting of previous games is still here and intact. You won't suddenly be asked to remember ridiculous combos. There is, however, more subtlety and variety to the bosses than in the previous incarnations, which too often involved a large enemy prone to charging you and waves of thugs thrown into the mix. Boss fights tend to come in multiple sections and require different approaches at different points. They're likely to require a bit of trial and error, too.
The other element that's been given a bit of a push is the game's detective mode. In Arkham City
it felt slightly peripheral to the main game, but there's more meat to it here. There's a sense that trawling certain crime scenes really is advancing the story. It's more elaborate here and it can be quite good fun, although fundamentally it's a fancy-pants hidden object mode.
Most of the game, however, feels like a retread of Arkham City
that's sometimes the prior game's equal and sometimes its inferior.
The premise, as I said earlier, gives the game much the same set-up as City
. While you're not in a walled-off urban penal colony for the disturbed, the fact it's Christmas Eve and snowing keeps civilians out of the way and leaves Gotham to you, the crims and few corrupt police. So you navigate the map, completing assorted story and side missions, involving combat, stealth and a bit of 3D puzzling/platforming.